SMU’s failure to provide Halal meat and pre-prayer washing rooms for Muslim students left Dima Balut feeling isolated and frustrated during her first year of college.
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“It felt like there was a lot I couldn’t do and there was a lot of discomfort and a lot of awkward feelings. It felt like most of the needs weren’t being met at that moment,” Balut said.
Balut is a Muslim student who grew up in Lebanon, where her faith is common. Now, as a sophomore at SMU, Balut is a part of a small community of Muslim students on a predominantly Christian-identifying campus. This has led Balut to find her religious needs often overlooked by her peers and the university as a whole.
Some colleges, like The Ohio State University, have made progress in meeting the needs of their Muslim students. SMU has joined those colleges in the past year as it’s implemented changes, including adding Halal food to the dining halls, putting pre-prayer washing rooms in centralized locations on campus, and distributing boxed meals during Ramadan.
However, Balut’s experience in her first year of college is not one to be overlooked.
Her biggest unmet need? The lack of Halal (“permissible”) meat on campus. This meant that Balut could only eat vegetarian food in the dining halls, despite the fact that she is not vegetarian.
“It was frustrating cause I knew my options were limited, even though I had a dining hall plan,” Balut said. The cheapest option of the required SMU dining hall plan cost $6,200 during Balut’s first year of college.
Instead of eating in the dining halls, Balut said she brought food from home every week and played “Tetris” to fit it all into her mini-fridge. She then microwaved her food for nearly every meal, an experience which Balut described as “pretty miserable.”
Performing her daily prayers was also an uncomfortable experience. There are prayer spaces in Fondren Library and Hughes-Trigg Student Center, which Balut said were convenient. However, there was not any centralized space for Muslim students to do their obligatory pre-prayer cleansing, called wudu. Making wudu consists of washing the face, arms, head, and feet with water. Every time she prayed, Balut went to her community bathroom to make wudu.
This was not ideal for two reasons. One, the walking time turned her prayer trips from two minutes to 30 minutes. Second, making wudu in a communal bathroom space was uncomfortable, since other students typically don’t know what it is, Balut said. Some Muslim students even resorted to making wudu in the janitor’s closet.
“It’s definitely an uncomfortable situation, and it makes the whole process a little more unpleasant,” Balut said. “Prayer is supposed to be a calming, private moment. And then you’re in a communal bathroom, and it just feels awkward kind of having to hide what you’re doing.”
Thankfully, accommodations for Muslim students at SMU have improved drastically over the last year. However, there are still other universities where Muslim students face similar difficulties that Balut did in her first year of college.
Take North Dakota State University (NDSU) for example. Despite saying they provide resources to advance “a sense of belonging for our diverse students” on their website, the university has no designated prayer spaces, no Halal meat options in the dining halls, and no wudu room for pre-prayer washings.
The Muslim population at the university is small, which may contribute to the lack of accommodations. Asif Jalal, a Muslim at NDSU, estimated that out of the approximately 13,000 students enrolled in the university, only around 150 are Muslim.
Dr. Mark Chancey is a professor of religious studies at SMU. He said that being able to practice faith through action is foundational to being a Muslim.
“It’s not just an inner state or a mindset or a set of doctrine,” Dr. Chancey said. “It’s about action and lifestyle.”
Dr. Chancey said that it is very important for universities to model acceptance by creating environments where people can live out their identities.
“Especially as an institution, we say we encourage diversity, and so we need to facilitate that diversity by making it an environment that’s comfortable for people to practice whatever religion they identify with,” Dr. Chancey said.
Despite the inconveniences they face, Muslim students at NDSU found workarounds so they can continue to practice their faith. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) books rooms in the student union for prayer every day, a process which Jalal described as “difficult.” Many Muslim students also buy food from grocery stores near campus rather than eating in the dining halls. For wudu, students either go off-campus or do it in the public restrooms.
While this remains a larger issue, SMU has made tremendous strides in meeting the needs of its diverse student body.
Now, as a sophomore at SMU, Balut’s ability to practice her faith has improved drastically. She is now able to eat Halal meat in the dining halls and make wudu in a private washroom located right next to a Muslim-specific prayer room. SMU Dining has also provided boxed meals for Muslim students during the holy month of Ramadan, during which Muslim students fast from dawn to dusk.
Balut went from eating in the dining hall three times her first semester to three times per week this past semester. The presence of wudu and prayer rooms in Hughes-Trigg also unintentionally turned the building into a community space for Muslim students. In addition to all of this, SMU Chaplain Rev. Lisa Garvin attended a Muslim Student Association meeting to interact with the students, an expression which Balut was touched by.
“In general, it just seems a lot more people are willing to talk to us and willing to listen to us. It’s been a much more welcoming environment,” Balut said.
Dr. Bilal Sert began working as the Muslim chaplain to the university in December of 2019. Once the Muslim community had Dr. Sert as an advocate, the changes were put into motion. He worked with staff members in SMU Student Affairs and SMU Dining, including Dawn Norris, Blake Pollard, Jeffery McKinley, and Farrah Ahmed, to name a few. Dr. Sert describes the people he worked with as “God’s gift” to him. He attributed much of the credit to these people, estimating that he only did 10-15% of the work.
“SMU did this. SMU did all of this,” Dr. Sert said, with an appreciative smile. “I was just a facilitator, that’s all.”
Dr. Dawn Norris is the executive director for Student Involvement at SMU. She represented the Hughes-Trigg Student Center during the recent renovations and played a critical role in the design and implementation of wudu rooms. For Dr. Norris, the hope was that Muslim students would see this as a “physical manifestation” of support for them and their faith.
“This added amenity was on the student affairs wish list from the beginning,” Dr. Norris said. “We wanted our Muslim students, faculty, and staff to feel a sense of belonging in their student center.”
Jeffery McKinley, the director of SMU Dining, was instrumental in getting Halal food options and Ramadan meals. He said he was motivated to make these changes because he is “committed to supporting the needs of our students and providing high-quality, nutritious meals to our SMU community.”
Dr. Sert said that the changes have had a “huge” impact on his prayer life. He regularly uses the wudu and prayer rooms in Hughes-Trigg, which provide a welcome break from his office while working. Dr. Sert described Halal food in the dining halls as “priceless,” because it means he is no longer isolated when eating meals, an experience which he had when attending graduate school at Texas Woman’s University.
“SMU is trying hard to embrace all these diversities. Trying to be inclusive for all students on campus,” Dr. Sert said. “I feel that desire to improve in terms of diversity culture.”
While the recent changes are a great start, Muslim students still have lingering needs. This year, Ramadan, the most important holiday in Islam, falls during the school year. Worse yet, it is during finals week. This means that Muslim students are fasting all day, all the while attempting to focus on papers, projects, classes, and exams. In response to these needs, SMU included information on how to reschedule a final to observe Ramadan in a newsletter distributed to all undergraduate students.
“This is a huge problem for me, I’ve actually suffered in quizzes and exams that are being held in the middle of the day or the end of the day when I’m very hungry,” said SMU student Ahmed Muhammad. “The accepted truth is that we just have to deal with this the way it comes. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a problem.”
Balut said she also struggled with Ramadan falling during finals week. Since Muslim students often have low energy during the day due to fasting, many wait until after eating at sundown to do all their schoolwork. This means, however, that they end up sleep-deprived. For Balut, this has also impacted her ability to practice her spirituality like she typically would during the month of Ramadan.
Muhammad said this issue could be corrected by making deadlines more flexible during the month of Ramadan, providing asynchronous class options, and allowing Muslim students to take exams after eating.
If you attend a university where your needs as a Muslim student are not being met, Muslim Student Association has resources for requesting accommodations. You can also contact Dr. Bilal Sert at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on getting religious arrangements at your university.